In Episode 110, Donald Thompson, CEO and Co-Founder of The Diversity Movement, joins Melinda in an enriching conversation about how underestimated leaders can pave a pathway to success. Donald shares his successful journey overcoming adversities as an underestimated leader and how his path can help leaders create access and opportunity for marginalized people in their workplaces. He shares his strategies for implementing inclusive leadership across large organizations and growing companies by maximizing everyone’s unique talents and evaluating team performance. He also provides practical ways for underrepresented entrepreneurs to gain access to funding by knowing how to approach the right VC firms.
- Learn more about Donald Thompson
- Learn more about Donald’s work at The Diversity Movement
- Read Donald’s book, “Underestimated: A CEO’s Unlikely Path to Success”
- Watch or listen to EP76: “Psychological Safety & The Neuroscience Of Trust With Dr. Vivienne Ming”
This videocast is made accessible thanks to Interpreter-Now. Learn more about our show sponsor Interpreter-Now at www.interpreter-now.com.
- “Wherever you are in your organization, create your brand and your narrative as somebody whose work ethic is second to none; that doesn’t mean [working] 70–80 hours a week, it just means when you’re working, you’re putting in highly effective and productive time. The second thing… is, don’t be afraid to be bad at something while you’re learning…; I was willing to be bad at something initially to get in that learning mode from others around me…. The third thing… is really understanding the power of your personal network as you grow in business.”
- “One of the things that I would tell [entrepreneurs with underrepresented identities] is number one, don’t talk to so many people that don’t want to talk to you; there are businesses and investment groups and venture capital organizations that are built specifically with their mission that focus on underrepresented entrepreneurs. Start there first…. In terms of advice…, you have to understand the numbers so that you don’t get too down with people that don’t get your vision or dream…. The final thing… is really do your homework based on the feedback that you get from investors that say ‘No’…. It’s really… important to move away from the emotion of it and move towards the factual reasons.”
- “Number one, be much more inquisitive about finding those diamonds in the rough within your organization…; one of the ways to do that is to get to know people and their superpowers that might not be easy and obvious to spot. The second thing…, keep winning and succeeding…; and results matter— the more you succeed, the more you can take that platform and make sure that [how] the organization behaves [is] aligned with their mission.”
CEO & Co-Founder of The Diversity Movement
Donald Thompson is CEO and co-founder of The Diversity Movement. He is the author of Underestimated: A CEO’s Unlikely Path to Success. Thompson is an entrepreneur, public speaker, author, podcaster, Certified Diversity Executive (CDE), and executive coach. He serves as a board member for Easterseals UCP, Vidant Medical Center, Raleigh Chamber, TowneBank Raleigh, and several other organizations in the fields of technology, marketing, sports, and entertainment. Visit him at donaldthompson.com.
MELINDA: Hello, everyone. I’m Melinda Briana Epler, Founder and CEO of Change Catalyst and author of How to Be an Ally. I’m your host of Leading With Empathy & AllyShip. Welcome!
Allyship is about learning, showing empathy, and taking action. That process often includes learning, unlearning, and relearning, then building empathy for people with different experiences, and above all, taking consistent action. So each week, we’ll learn from somebody new. Please be open to new ways of thinking and understanding. You can learn more about my work and sign up to join us for a live recording at ally.cc.
Let’s get started.
Hello, everyone. Our guest today is Donald Thompson, Co-Founder and CEO of the Diversity Movement, and author of Underestimated: A CEO’s Unlikely Path to Success. We’ll be talking about his own experience as someone who has often been underestimated, as a Southern-born African American, with no college degree, no technical background, as he self-describes, and his path to building, growing, and selling companies as a CEO, and now is an investor and a DEI expert as well. We’ll talk about pushing boundaries, using success as revenge, and paving new pathways to success.
So, Don, welcome.
DON: Oh, thank you so much. I’m really glad to be here, and looking forward to the conversation.
MELINDA: Likewise. So, Don, let’s start first with a bit about where you grew up, and how that shaped your career pathway.
DON: Yeah, thanks so much for asking. I was born in Bogalusa, Louisiana, a papermill town in Louisiana. And when you think of anything that you’d have stereotypical about the Deep South, this would be true. Four or five stoplights, football and sports were very big, one major employer, and certainly a lot of the interpersonal and segregation and racial challenges that many parts of America had in the 70s, and obviously, before. My parents met in high school. I’m the son of a football coach, and we’ll talk about that maybe later on. But they moved to Connecticut to further their education, and really created a significant sea change and opportunities for me and my sister. So I was raised mostly then in the Northeast, and moved around a little bit with my father’s career over the years. So one of the things that I share with people is that I learned how to make friends quickly. Because when you’re young, up and coming, going to school, and you’re always the new kid, you have to learn how to find some commonality with people in different regions of the country, different backgrounds. So those are some of the things I would share as we get started about my early upbringing.
MELINDA: Yeah. Let’s start with the word “underestimate.” For the next conversation, I think it’s really important for people to know what that means. What does that mean to you?
DON: You know, we all have areas in our lives where people don’t think the best of us. So when I use the word underestimated, it can apply to me and my professional career being the only in the room as a Black American leader for so many times. It could be someone that has disabilities, and someone who doesn’t think they can do a very technical job, because maybe they process information differently. It could be some of us that maybe don’t fit a certain optical look and appeal. Whatever those things that people may think less of us for, create that foundation for being underestimated, and then it’s for us to determine how we’re going to react and respond and overcome that initial picture that someone may have over us. What are we going to do about that? But that’s how I think about underestimated.
MELINDA: Yeah. The biases and the assumptions that people have about us, basically, that shape their perception of what we can and can’t do, and our experience. Well, let’s go into the next piece, then. A lot of your book focuses on your experiences as you navigate through systemic and cultural barriers to opportunity; microaggressions, microaggressions, biases, and other forms of inequity. There’s always the intergenerational impacts of some of those barriers too, and the impacts of generational wealth and careers. So how do you respond? How do you respond to adversity and people underestimating you?
DON: One of the things that my parents taught me and ingrained in me… So you can teach someone something. But you can also—through repetition, through examples you use, and how you live your life—ingrain a thinking in them. One of the things from my parents was, you have to win with the cards that you’re dealt. So even though I understood that the world was not set up for my success, that there were areas that I would be underestimated, there were areas where people would think less of me because of where I came from and what I looked like and my lack of a degree, it was still my responsibility to make the most of the skills and tools and blessings and privileges that I did have. I did have the opportunity to be educated. I did have the ability to grow up in a home with two parents. I did have the opportunity to understand that if I got knocked down, I could get back up.
So that mental model, that independent of my circumstance, I could still dream big, and to not allow someone else to determine my personal narrative. That’s something that really helped underpin that fighter mentality, if you will. I don’t mean so much in a physical standpoint, I mean in a mental construct, that I was not willing to accept a narrative that was placed on me by someone else. That helped me push through, that helped me be enthusiastic, even though I might have felt uncomfortable in a room in Kentucky, in Bowling Green, Kentucky, where I went to high school part of the years, and I was the only Black person in my Honors English class. But I used that as fuel. Not something to create a feeling of inequity, but to do better, to be better, and become better.
MELINDA: I think that is tough for a lot of people to do. Is there anything that you can share about how you do that? Just looking back at my own experiences, as a girl and then a young woman, and the adversity that I experienced, I internalized a lot of it.
DON: It certainly wasn’t easy. So I don’t want to portray it was something that I learned, I believed, and then I achieved. There are ups and downs to all of our journeys, as we look to figure out how to progress. So one of the things I had to do was really have mental reminders for myself of what I wanted to be. When my dreams and goals were strong enough, the short-term pain, the short-term awkwardness, the short-term challenges I had to overcome, they were there; they still hurt a little bit. But my goals kept me focused on what I ultimately wanted to be. To be very specific to your question, when I thought about business, when I thought about money, when I thought about financial success, I didn’t want money and financial success to buy a bigger car or to have a bigger house. I wanted it so that I could have choices of how I lived, who I worked with, and what I worked on. Because I thought and saw that the most successful people had the most choices. So those are things that I kept in the forefront of my mind, when I really wanted to go in a corner and be silent and not heard, not defend and fight for myself. I kept in front of me what I ultimately wanted, and those are things that kept me moving and motivated.
The second thing that I will tell you is that even though I was the only in many cases, I also got good at finding common ground with people in these environments. A lot of it for me was sports. For others, it may be the theater or music. It doesn’t matter your situation, but most of the times when we’re in groups, if we only focus on the things that make us unique, the only, then we can self-isolate, even if the group wants to include us. When we look at things that bring us together, things that are common amongst us, all of a sudden, I got good at making friends, I created a different set of peer groups. Even though I had some of those awkward feelings, I also had some amazing moments with people that I had a lot in common with, all along through my journey.
MELINDA: Yeah. That actually brings me back to a conversation we had with Dr. Vivian Ming, who did some research on trust. What she found was that we tend to trust people who are like us, and distrust people who are different from us. So one of the ways to go about changing that would be to find those commonalities, to work hard to find those commonalities with each other. Because trust is such a key piece of decision-making and taking risks and all of those other things. I think that’s really important.
DON: No, I appreciate that. Also, I read down the author, and we’ll read that as well. We all strive to be included. As much as we talk about “we want to be individuals, and we want to walk through our own drumbeat,” and different things, everyone wants to be included and feel like they have the same opportunities to express themselves as others. That’s just something part of who we are as humans. So one of the things that I also had to grow into, and this took some time, is not to automatically take things negative when people didn’t understand. For many, I was the only Black person that they’d ever really come in contact with. I was the only person on the sports team that they knew that was a person of color. So their experience set was so limited, that a lot of the phrasing or things that they would use weren’t necessarily attacking on purpose. They were something that they hadn’t experienced or understood. So as I matured and grew, and now I have a family, I have three daughters, I have one son, and I taught my daughters to speak their mind, to chase their goals. Many times over the dinner table, my young daughters would say, “Dad, you wouldn’t say that if you were talking about a man.” They would talk to me about the things that they heard through their ears, through their lens, and helped keep me focused on using language that was inclusive versus language that was not. So I think we all have that opportunity along the way where we feel strong, to help educate those that may not be experienced enough to know the difference between what is inclusive language or not. Really, that everything’s not coming from a negative space, sometimes it’s limited information or experience.
MELINDA: Yeah, absolutely. So we haven’t talked yet about what you do. Maybe we’ll stop for a moment, and you can share what you do and what you have done over the years, just to paint a picture of that before we go more into.
DON: Love that, and thank you so much for the space. I’ve had a wonderful career to date, and lots more to do. But I’ve spent time in technology sales and sold some technology-based businesses, I’ve spent time as the CEO of a digital marketing firm. So communication and branding and messaging is something that I’ve worked on with all different types of companies. I’m currently the CEO and Co-Founder of the Diversity Movement, and we’ll talk about that in a moment. I serve on probably seven different boards from angel investments that I’ve made, or I’m on the Board of Directors for Vidant Medical Centre, now ECU Health, that is one of the top 20 medical systems in the country. One of the reasons I’m very proud of that is they’re focused in eastern North Carolina, which is a very rural community. So we talk about diversity, equity, and inclusion, a lot of times we think race and gender and sexual orientation. But economics has a lot to do with diversity, equity, and inclusion as well; the difference between what we do in the city, and the advantages that we have there, and not leaving rural America behind. So I’ve got a varied footprint of thought on the way diversity, equity, and inclusion can apply in the business landscape.
MELINDA: I think, in that, too, is one of the things that is really powerful, in terms of success, in terms of people who are underrepresented, underestimated, marginalized, when they become successful, there’s a ripple effect. That ripple effect is, the people you hire, the communities where you’re impacting, where your business thrives, where you’re investing, the generational wealth that grows as well, the ability for younger people also to see themselves reflected. All of those are ripple effects. You have any thoughts about that?
DON: One of the things that I’m proud of and I think is aligned with your example is, a lot of my businesses are run and led by women leaders. In particular, Walk West, the digital agency that I was the CEO and now I’m the Board Chair, my successor is Abha Bowers, who is a phenomenal woman of color, a phenomenal business leader, that is taking the business to the next level. Because I’m invested in the firm, because I was the former CEO, because I’m the Board Chair, I was able to be very influential in the selection process. We did a national search; we didn’t just hand her the business. But she was able to compete on a very relatively fair-playing ground, because I was able to ensure that. So we looked broad for the best leader for that business, and by looking for the best leader, that happened to be Abha, who also is a woman of color, who’s also a business leader. But the ability to open those doors for others has a lot to do with your responsibility and opportunity when you’ve met with some level of success. So when I sit on boards, when I have the opportunity to work with hiring decisions, I get to be an influential seat at the table that can look more broadly at the candidate sets that were being presented. That has its advantages as we’re trying to make movement on diversity, equity, and inclusion in the workplace.
MELINDA: Yeah, absolutely. I have many questions for you. One of the things that you write in your book is, “The best way to defeat low expectations is to succeed.” Also, at the end of your book, “Thank you to the bullies in my life” is kind of a similar sentiment. Can you share more about this and that idea of using success as revenge?
DON: I’ll start with “Thank you to the bullies,” because I don’t like bullies. When you move around a lot, and before you come into your own as a young person… And years ago, I had big fit glasses, so I was a walking talking billboard to be picked on, and some folks in Pittsburgh and some of the different cities I moved into did not let me down. So there were some bullies that both physically and verbally introduced me to New Towns. But it made me stronger. It made me realize the strength I had within. That a lot of times bullies pick on you because you don’t know who you are, and you allow it. Sometimes you need help with administrators and different things, I don’t want to speak to every situation. But in my situation, it was really a wake-up call of whether or not I was going to stand for me, or allow the bullies to use me as a plaything. It created a sense of toughness and strength that I’m grateful for is what I would say. For me, some of that was both verbal and physical. I had to learn how to develop some fisticuffs skills, in the schoolyard. And what I found is, bullies don’t typically want to pick on people that are willing to fight back. So I had to learn how to fight back.
The other thing that I will say, that is really, really important in terms of success is, that we all lift up in our society—whether it is politically, whether it is business monetarily, whether it is in the music scene—those that have hit success at a high level. I wanted to be someone that was worth emulating, and then I could be an example of what could be versus spending most of my time, effort, and energy on what I didn’t have. So those are a couple of things that drove me throughout my childhood, and still do today as a result. So yes, thank you to the bullies, they made me stronger.
MELINDA: Yeah. I also wonder, too, if those experiences impact how you navigate the world, how you navigate as a leader, and ways that you think about leadership.
DON: One of the things that in our opening, when you were talking about your audience, I’m so glad to be here, you were talking about the leaders on the end of this hall that are beyond the basics. So let me give a couple of examples of how some of these things have affected me in terms of leading large organizations and growing companies. So number one is, it’s taught me to look for diamonds in the rough, and that’s really, really important. Because a lot of times, extroverts can command the meeting, and they’re more outgoing and are more verbose. And you can miss some really talented individuals that have an introverted personality and need somebody to bring that out of them. So that’s one thing is it got me thinking about how to maximize talent from folks that may communicate a little bit differently.
The second thing that I think is really, really important, is as a leader, it made me ask the follow-up questions. Because a lot of times, as a leader, we’re thinking and listening to what we’re hearing in that moment. But a powerful question that I’ve used, and still use to this day, is there something going on with you with our environment that is affecting your performance in a negative way? That simple question, over the years, has given me many, many points of insight on things that I need to improve as a leader, my organizations needed to improve, or things that were going on outside of work in someone’s environment, to give me the full spectrum of how to evaluate them. So when I think about all of the lessons that I’ve learned, it’s really helped me to ask more questions before I determine a point-of-view.
MELINDA: Yeah. I think that’s a really, really key piece of good leadership, of inclusive leadership. What’s one of the most difficult decisions you’ve made as a leader?
DON: Sometimes, we’ll hear phrases in leadership, “The customer is always right,” and that’s just not true. Sometimes, your customers’ and clients’ behavior negatively impacts the team, or your customers’ or clients’ behaviors are contrary to the brand that you’re building as an organization. Some of the toughest decisions that I’ve had to make is when to walk away from a financially beneficial relationship, because the business alignment wasn’t there for the team members that I wanted to be with me for the long-term. So I think about it and I pause, it’s such a great question, because that’s really now where your mission and values meet. That’s where it leads to leadership decisions. Because now there’s a financial impact to you making this determination that this customer or client’s behavior is not in line with what you’re trying to build. There’s been a couple of instances in my career where we’ve had to turn away from businesses and opportunities, because it was so unsettling or so disjointed for the team that was working on those projects. So I remember those very, very well.
The second thing that I would say, and this is still tough, it is very difficult for me and I still lose sleep over these things, when we need to transition and go in a different direction with an employee. I think it’s a good thing. If you ever get numb to the fact of having to make tough decisions in the workplace, then I think you’re losing some of the empathy, some of the human nature that you need to really lead all of your team. So I’m very thoughtful and cognizant of the impact to people’s lives when you have to make those tough decisions, and how can you slow down and really work with that individual, your HR team, your environment, to make that transition as strong and as powerful as possible for both people, even if the outcome on the surface is initially not positive. I’ve seen over the years that that thought and that act of purpose in doing that has worked out very well in 85–90% of the cases. I wouldn’t say every time, but in most cases.
Then the final thing I’ll say on that, is that people in your organizations that look to you for leadership, that model, that watch you, develop trust in you by the actions you take when people are at their weakest moments. Which means, how do you treat people if you have to move them outside the organization? How do you treat people if they’ve made a big mistake? People are watching how you react to people in those moments, to then determine how much they trust you as a business leader. What a wonderful question, that’s a question with serious depth!
MELINDA: I have a follow-up question to the last piece of that that you shared, which is, we’re seeing a lot of tech companies make a lot of layoffs. In general, as a manager, as a leader, you’re going to face those decisions. You have any thoughts that you could share about ways to do that in the most inclusive and equitable way? Because I can see that some of these companies are not doing that.
DON: Yeah, it is really difficult in times of duress to live all of your values, and that’s what we’re seeing in companies. Because if you look at companies that misbehave, that don’t do things appropriately, their values say something different. So they know the difference between right and wrong.
So the way that I would answer it is this. Because I don’t have all the answers, I don’t have a perfect business. But I strive for it. I strive for excellence. Here’s the thing. You have to really think about if you were on the other side of that conversation, how would you want your professional career, your family, your perspective to be handled, and try to get as close to that as you can within the framework of your business and organization. That’s the way that keeps me grounded. If I were on the other side of that conversation, knowing that companies have to make tough calls all the time, I absolutely get it. But once you make that decision, the way you implement that decision is very much within your control. If you think about yourself on the other end of that dialogue, a lot of times you’re going to be a little bit more thoughtful, you’re going to slow down the conversation a little bit, that severance package, it might hurt a little bit more, but a little bit stronger. Because you know that you want as a part of your brand, that even in tough times, you treat people well.
MELINDA: Yeah. I would say on top of that, too, is to also think further about somebody who’s experience might be different from yours, too. That also is important to keep in mind too, that as you’re laying off the person on the other end, as you’re letting that person go, how is that impacting them and their families and so on, too, in ways that might be different as well? It’s equally important to deepen empathy for them, so that we go beyond sympathy to empathy, to really understanding their unique situation, and doing that in a way that really aligns ultimately with your own values.
DON: That’s right. I appreciate the remarks, I agree completely.
MELINDA: Yeah. So looking back on all the work that you’ve done over the years, and the ways that you have stepped in and stepped up and become who you are now, and through adversity, through the different barriers in your life, what piece of advice would you offer to a young person today?
DON: Thank you so much. Success leaves clues. Wherever you are in your organization, create your brand and your narrative as somebody whose work ethic is second to none. That doesn’t mean 70–80 hours a week. It just means when you’re working, you’re putting in highly effective and productive time.
The second thing that I would say is, don’t be afraid to be bad at something while you’re learning. That’s one of the big things that has helped me. If you think about my career in technology, and as a CEO of a technology firm, but I don’t have a computer science degree, I don’t have a technology background. But I became a sales professional and worked with application engineers and QA engineers and product managers, and little by little, over a 10-year period of time as a sales professional, I really learned from some of these wonderful professionals. So over time, my competency in the technology space started to become a strength. But I was willing to be bad at something initially, to get in that learning mode from others around me. Not only did I learn the knowledge and insight, I built a coalition of partners within the organization, that ultimately, when it was time to choose a new leader of the business, I had so many relationships with our clients, with our partners, with our employees, that I was the natural choice. Because I was good at learning and bringing people together, and not necessarily depending on having the answer myself.
The third thing that I would share in terms of advice that I would give to my younger self, so to speak, is really understanding the power of your personal network as you grow in business. I know that now, but man, if I would have really embraced that, if I would have really embraced that follow-up of every cup of coffee 20 years ago and built that, man, it would be even so much more powerful today! That’s one of the things that I think about quite often, as I’m building relationships and building new opportunities to grow with people in the corporate setting.
MELINDA: Thank you for sharing that. I want to ask a follow-up question to this. Because there are so many people with underrepresented identities, under-estimated identities, that are working to become successful entrepreneurs in a landscape that is not created for them, where investment dollars do not flow to them, where it’s a different kind of struggle as an entrepreneur. And you have become a successful entrepreneur. Do you have any thoughts specifically for those folks?
DON: Yeah, I absolutely do. In fact, with the diversity movement, we are three years in business, we’re raising capital; we’ve raised close to a million dollars in capital, our goal continues. But one of the things that I would tell you very specifically—and again, thank you for the question—is number one, don’t talk to so many people that don’t want to talk to you. There are businesses and investment groups and venture capital organizations that are built specifically with their mission, that focus on underrepresented entrepreneurs. Start there first. Because they want to see you, they want to hear you, they want to give you tips and different things. We probably have talked to, me and my team, in this last round of funding, over 100 different investors, and we’ve gotten probably 80 No’s. But you only need 15 to 20 Yeses to make your number.
So one of the things in terms of advice is, you have to understand the numbers so that you don’t get too down with people that don’t get your vision or dream. If you think you’re supposed to go one of one, if you think you’re supposed to go five of five, you’re misrepresenting the anxiety and pressure that you need. If you realize that if you talk to 100 people, and 10–15% want to go into due diligence with you. If out of that 10–15%, 50% of them end up investing, that means you got 6–7 investors that can get you started and get momentum in growing what you need to grow. Then once you get those 6–7, then the numbers reshape themselves the next 100 you talk to, because people have already believed in you with their checkbook. So knowing and understanding what the true number should be, can take some of the anxiety out of it.
The final thing that I would say is, really do your homework based on the feedback that you get from investors that say No. When I think back, I have about 25 very specific points that helped me grow into a better pitch with this new business, from the investors that said No. It’s really, really important to move away from the emotion of it, and move towards the factual reasons, and then you can now have a much more powerful presentation as to the ones you’re going to win with eventually anyway. But those are a couple things from my experience recently in going through it.
MELINDA: Yeah. I wonder if you would agree with me that also, filter your advice. It is not all good advice, and that’s a really important piece of it. Especially if you are speaking to the people that are likely to invest in you, you might be getting the wrong advice, and then that is really important.
DON: Well, here’s the thing in terms of that filter. Number one, absolutely. So yes, and amen. The second thing is think about the motives of why people are telling you what they’re telling you, and that’s a good reason. Sometimes people are giving you the professional Hollywood No. They’re just being overly-polite, but they’re just not interested. Whereas other times, I’ll hear phrases like “Don, when you achieve X, Y, and Z, here’s what I want to see the next time you pitch to us.” That’s very different language, and usually, when people are using that language, they’re giving me very specifically deal misses or parameters that we just didn’t hit. Then I know that’s the best piece of advice, because they’re giving me the link between where I am and where I need to be. When I start to hear that kind of phrasing, powerful!
The second thing is, I usually don’t take advice from people that don’t give me something. Here’s what I mean. I’ll talk to a lead or investor, they’ll say, “You know what, this isn’t for me right now. You should talk to John. They’re in a fund, and this is what they’re looking for. Don, this isn’t what we’re looking for right now, you should see XYZ accelerator.” Usually people that care about what I’m doing, who want me to win, are going to give me some piece of practical advice or referral that is very targeted, which lets me know they heard what I was saying. That even though I wasn’t a good fit for them, they took that information and pointed me in a reasonable direction that could move me further down the line, those are the folks that I tend to listen to.
MELINDA: Interesting. You write about mentorship in your book, I actually think that that works for mentorship too.
DON: Absolutely. I think I wouldn’t be where I am without some really powerful mentors. One of the things that I tell to folks that I talk with, is you have to be ready to be mentored. When you go into a meeting, whether it is virtual or in-person, do you let people know that you’re taking notes? Like I am in this conversation, and learning from Melinda, just like I hope your audience is learning from things that I’m sharing. Do I follow-up in conversations with a note, either electronically or physically, to let that person know that I appreciated their time, effort, and energy?
Then here’s something that I’ll tell you as a cheat code for mentorship, which I was sharing with an MBA group a couple of months ago. When I’m in meetings with very successful people that I would want to mentor me or want to remember my name or different things, and maybe we have a 30-minute meeting for them to pitch me on something I’m doing, I’ll say in the beginning of the meeting, “If we can finish our core business together in 25 minutes, can I use the last 5 minutes getting advice from you on what makes a successful leader?” I’ve never had someone turn me down. Two reasons. If we finish our core work, the reason you took the call with me, in less time, can I use the “remaining” time to learn from you? I’ve really gotten, over 10 years of doing that, a tremendous amount of information and feedback, and I’ve set the seed and the foundation to relationships for further ask. Because usually what that leader will tell me, and this is by and large how it works, they’ll give me a piece of advice, they’ll give me something to read, and they’ll say: “Don, if you need anything else from me, now’s not the best time, but you give me a call. I love what you’re doing, here’s how to get in touch with me.” Because most people don’t know how to be ready to be mentored, and how to put yourself out there as somebody that has that competitive learning mentality. But that’s a cheat code that I’ll share with you that I’ve been doing with leaders for years.
MELINDA: I love that. I think that that’s great, I love it. What piece of advice would you offer to folks who are allies—or want to be allies, want to be good allies, who recognize the barriers, the inequities, the marginalization that people experience—and are looking to make a difference for a young person, a young you, what actions can they take?
DON: One of the things that is super-important is asking people how you can be helpful to them. Just that simple ask will open up a lot of questions. Sometimes people just want to be heard. They have some things that are on their heart and mind, and they just need somebody that is an active listener with them, just to really hear what they’re working on and working through. Then sometimes people have very specific asks. I’ll give you an example. So I was talking in a DEI cohort, I do a lot of training and teaching. I said to the group, it was 20 leaders, and predominantly women leaders on this call in particular, and one of the leaders said, “Most of my mentors are women. Most of the people that I need to sell my ideas to in my company are men, and I’m missing that perspective. Would it be okay if I called and took 15–20 minutes and walked through a big presentation that I have to give in the next few weeks?” I said, absolutely. We walked through the presentation, and I gave some comments of thinking about leaders and how they receive information. But I asked that group, how can I be helpful, and I got some very specific requests back. But as an ally, I had to open the door. It’s the responsibility of someone else to walk through the door.
Like, I don’t walk down the street and be like, “I’m an ally, I’m here to help. Allyship, I’m here to help.” But when I’m in those settings, and I say, “Listen, if I can be useful, if I can be valuable to you, based on my background, based on what you know, please reach out, and I’ll reach back.” I had a person that was just starting their MBA, reach out on LinkedIn and ask for a virtual cup of coffee for about 10–15 minutes. Because they’re in career transition, their resume is light for where they want to go. So what we talked about is how to link skills from current experience, current education, previous things that had been very successful, and how to align those skills with the new arena that she wanted to go into. For me, because I have a varied career, lots of different industries I’ve been working on, I could help her with that mental mapping that we could then document on paper, and we did it in about 15–20 minutes.
So to answer your question in terms of how to be a good ally, in my opinion, is I like to get practical. I want to know what roadblocks that you’re facing that you understand, and then how do we put some things in action, that we can get moving to overcome them to make the world a little bit better place, a little bit smoother?
MELINDA: Fantastic. I always end with two questions. The first is, what actions would you like people to take coming away from our conversation today?
DON: So the action that I would hope people would take from the conversation today is two things. Number one, be much more inquisitive about finding those diamonds in the rough within your organization. Because there’s leaders on this call, we have the ability to influence diversity, equity, and inclusion in our businesses. One of the ways to do that is to get to know people and their superpowers that might not be easy and obvious to spot, number one.
The second thing that I would say, is keep winning and succeeding. You have more power in your organization the stronger you are as a leader within your organization, and results matter. The more you succeed, the more you can take that platform and make sure that the organization behaves aligned with their mission. I really feel very strongly about that, because leaders in business at all levels listen to their superstars. So become one, so that you can now look out for others in the organization a little bit better from that different perspective. But thank you for that question, it was a good question.
MELINDA: Yeah, absolutely. Last question is, where can people learn more about you and your work?
DON: So I’m big on LinkedIn, in terms of the amount of time that I spend there; not I’m big on LinkedIn. That came out super-weird, I’m big in these LinkedIn streets, you know. But if you reach out on LinkedIn, I’ll reach back, connect, follow. Then DonaldThompson.com is a great way to get access to the book and speaking and coaching. Then the final thing I’d say is, TheDiversityMovement.com has a bunch of free resources about how to make DEI applicable in your day-to-day work. Whether it’s the ROI of DEI, whether it is how to have tough conversations in the workplace, whether it is a free calendar that really looks at all the DEI events and how to model those in the flow of work. We’re very big in a mission-based way of having a lot of free resources available for those that want to learn to be more.
MELINDA: Fantastic. Don, thank you. Thank you for sharing your experiences, thank you for sharing your expertise, and having a conversation today. Appreciate you.
DON: Oh, thank you so much. This has been really, really fun.
MELINDA: Awesome! Likewise.
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Remember, the more we take action, the more we grow as humans and as leaders, and the more we transform our communities. So what action will you take today? Let us know your actions by emailing podcast@ChangeCatalyst.co or reaching out on social media.
Leading With Empathy & AllyShip is a show by Change Catalyst, where we build inclusive innovation through training, consulting, and events. You can learn more about us at change catalyst.co. So let’s keep building allyship across our communities and around the world.
Thank you for listening.
Host: Melinda Briana Epler
Melinda Briana Epler has over 25 years of experience developing business innovation and inclusion strategies for startups, Fortune 500 companies, and global NGOs.
As CEO of Change Catalyst, Melinda currently works with the tech industry to solve diversity and inclusion together. Using her background in storytelling and large-scale culture change, she is a strategic advisor for tech companies, tech hubs, and governments around the world. She co-leads a series of global solutions-focused conferences called Tech Inclusion, where she has partnered with over 450 tech companies and community organizations and hosted 43 solutions-focused diversity and inclusion events around the world.
Previously, Melinda was a Marketing and Culture Executive and award-winning documentary filmmaker – her film and television work includes projects that exposed the AIDS crisis in South Africa, explored women’s rights in Turkey, and prepared communities for the effects of climate change. She has worked on several television shows, including NBC’s The West Wing.
Melinda is a TED speaker. She speaks, mentors and writes about diversity and inclusion in tech, allyship, social entrepreneurship, underrepresented entrepreneurs and investing. She has spoken on hundreds of stages around the world, including SXSW, Grace Hopper, Wisdom 2.0, the World Bank, Obama White House, Clinton Foundation, Black Enterprise, Google, Indeed, Capital One and McKinsey.
Watch Melinda’s TED Talk
Change Catalyst Co-Founder Melinda Briana Epler has spoken across the globe in hundreds of venues and virtual events. Empathy, Allyship, Advocacy, Microaggressions, Inclusive Leadership, and Building Inclusive Teams are just some of the topics Melinda has spoken on. Let us know about your next speaking engagement needs! Melinda has also spoken on how to build organizational capacity to advance diversity, equity, and inclusion, such as how to lead behavior change or how to build allies and advocates.
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